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CMAs Producer on Creating Buzzy Performances by Reba, Kacey Musgraves, Halsey and a Mostly Female Cast

Robert Deaton reveals what went into an epic "Fancy," hooking up Lady A with Halsey, and why Musgraves and Willie Nelson made us tear up.

When it comes to the exact drop away mechanics of how Reba McEntire pulled off multiple costume changes on camera at this year’s CMA Awards, only her dresser knows for sure. But longtime executive producer Robert Deaton can at least tell us approximately how many dozen rehearsals went into that performance of “Fancy.” And when it comes to other highlights of the 2019 show, from Kacey Musgraves’ tender duet with WIllie Nelson to Halsey’s hookup with Lady Antebellum, Deaton can also reveal which ideas were his and which he resisted before the star in question successfully sold him on it.

As Variety approached him with these and other burning questions about the telecast, Deaton was in a celebratory mood. With ratings for virtually all awards shows having hit record lows in recent years, country music’s not excluded, overnight reports showed the 2019  CMAs up by 12 percent from last year — an uptick that surely had a lot to do with the well-publicized teaming of Carrie Underwood, Dolly Parton and McEntire as cohosts, a high-wattage antidote to the epidemic of awards-show hostlessness. Their emergence as a trio coincided with a theme of celebrating women… although that doesn’t mean they won’t be invited back again, if the CMAs next got around to, say, The Year of the Man. Here, he details what went into some of the night’s key moments.

After disappointing numbers last year, seeing these ratings the next day had to be a good feeling.

In this day and age, you know what (awards show) ratings are like, and to be up and to be up as much as we were, makes the next day so good. If I had to pick a year to be up, I would pick this year, so that we could complete our honor of those women. This was the most important CMA Awards show that I’ve ever done.

It felt like you were killing two birds with one stone. Having the historically important women on there felt like a sequel to the 50th anniversary show a few years back, when everyone loved seeing all the veterans come on, which you did here, scratching the audience’s nostalgia itch. Yet you also get credit for being progressive by using the concept as an opportunity to showcase the young women as well.

Honestly, we went into it feeling like we did want to try to emulate the 50th. Carrie Underwood and I had several discussions and we specifically decided that, the way the open laid out, we wanted it to be exactly like what we did on the 50th, except all women, and not only was it the women that you maybe hadn’t seen in a while, but also these songs that you want to hear again. When Sara Evans started singing “Born to Fly,” it was just massive cheering going on in the room. And then “Independence Day” with Martina was our anthem of what the night was going to be about, independence day for women in our genre.

But at the same time, we had some very important nominees that were nominated this year — Runaway June, Maddie & Tae, Ashley McBride, Carly Pearce. We wanted to find a way to be able to showcase them that also felt like that it was part of the direction of the show as well. And that’s how I came up with the “Girl Crush” idea. It was one of my favorite things of the night. I didn’t know at first how well that was going to work — because it is seven artists in one three-minute song — but it never felt rushed.

And then some things are out of my control: certainly Maren Morris winning for album of the year, and then Ashley McBryde getting new artist of the year, and we also had the first female musician of the year (Jenee Fleenor, from Blake Shelton’s band).

You have a history with a lot of the artists, so these aren’t really cold calls for you to make.

I have had a blessing of being able to work with these women and know them and call them my friends, and I just could not let them down. The first time I worked with Dolly was 1991. I did a bunch of music videos with Reba back in the ‘90s. I did all of Gretchen Wilson’s music videos. I won the CMA video of the year award for “Independence Day” with Martina. The very first thing that I worked on when I was 18 years old and first moved to town: I was a production assistant on the Crisco commercials for Loretta Lynn out there in Hurricane Mills at her house. During rehearsal, I told Reba that the longest relationship I have with anybody is Loretta, because of the Crisco commercials, and she said, “Well, I have to tell you. Of everything that you’ve ever done or ever told me, that’s the most impressive thing that I have ever heard.”

Dolly is very visible at a lot of things, but she also really does not do anything she doesn’t want to. Was there anything challenging in getting her to cohost?

My plan on getting Dolly was a strategic plan. The first time we worked together was on a single of hers called “Silver and Gold” in 1991, and I produced and directed that music video, and continued to after that, when she made a trio record, “Honky Tonk Angels,” with Tammy and Loretta. But you’re right: She’ll say no to me in a heartbeat. Dolly does what she wants to do, and rightfully so. But I was strategic about it, and instead of doing it over the phone, I asked for a one-on-one meeting. And I had a secret weapon: I brought Carrie with me, because I just felt that if she saw that it was heartfelt and important enough for Carrie to fly in from her busy tour to sit in front of Dolly, she would understand the weight of the ask.

Reba was kind of a surprise, because she has hosted the rival ACMs for so many years. Does that mean she’s defected? Or is she a double agent?

Here’s the thing: We love the ACMs. We want country music to do well, so we want the ACMs to do well, as well, too. And I don’t really look at it that way, because Reba hosted the CMA Awards before she hosted anything, and so that never came into play. When I was in my mind trying to come up with the hosts, it was like, what’s the dream team, where you know it’s never going to happen, but you at least have to try? I said to Carrie, “We’re going to try to get Reba and Dolly, but you and I are going to have to sit down again, because the likelihood of us pulling this off… it’s not going to happen, and we’re going to have to go ask somebody else.” And it happened. With Reba… All of our acts and all of our hosts have something special. But nobody’s pulling off what Reba pulled off last night with that performance.

Let’s talk about that Reba performance of “Fancy,” the most talked about thing from the show. It probably set a record for live and on-camera costume reveals.

It was Reba’s idea about the costume changes, with her costume designer, Matt Logan, who’s a genius. We went through several different incarnations of how to stage that, going back and forth and not really hitting on anything. Then Clarence Spalding, Reba’s manager, and I were talking and I said, “I think I’ve got it.” We were not doing any other performance center stage. With our set design this year, our tunnel from the upstage to the downstage area is three times longer than it’s ever been, and it’s very dramatic. So if we could pull it off where two thirds of the performance is inside the tunnel, and then when she changes the wardrobe (for the final time), she breaks through into the opening at center stage… That’s how that came about. She had three separate costume reveals, and the performance was in four stages. The last stage was not another reveal, but the way she performed and moved herself downstage, and how she told the you felt like that was another wardrobe change, even though it was just her, being a storyteller.

When you’re talking about Reba, you’re talking about rarefied air, where you can look back at the great performers of all time, from Judy Garland all the way up until Celine Dion today. She could stand by herself in the center of the stage with nothing else and keep you captivated. That’s instinct that you cannot teach for one thing, but it’s also a career of experience, to be able to do that. And there’s only a handful of people in the world that can do that.

How much rehearsal for Reba’s number?

We probably ran through those changes probably 10 to 15 times with her, after we did it another 10 to 15 times with a stand-in before she got there, just to make sure we understood the beats of it and what the camera should be doing. We had to figure out ways to remove the clothing from the stage, which is subtle, which most people won’t even realize, because you don’t want two pieces of wardrobe lying on the floor. And offsite at her home and in the office, she worked on doing it over and over and over so it became second nature to her.

Five narrative verses is a lot by any era’s standards, but no one wants “Fancy” to be any shorter.

I’m a smart enough producer not even to bring up the subject of, “Well, should we shorten this song?” You just embrace it and you go for it.

Was the opening nine-minute number as tricky as it looks?

Each (act) was somewhere between 30 and 54 seconds. It’s complicated in the rehearsal. But I will tell you this: The women picked it up a whole lot quicker than the men did in the 50th (anniversary show). Gretchen Wilson came over and told me, “I don’t know if we have to do all this rehearsal. I think we can just run the music. I think we know what to do.” Hey, I think she was probably right. Because in the 50th, we never, ever got through the whole thing. The first time we ever saw that whole thing together was live on the air. But for this, two hours in, we had it nailed. That was an honor to put together, and an honor to be in the room, in the rehearsal. with them. And yeah, it was just beyond my imagination to be with that group. It was like a family reunion.

Amid the veterans, it was nice to have the Highwomen in there, representing Tammy.

When they start singing harmony, it’s crazy. And Brandi Carlile literally just might be the coolest person on the planet.

Were there any women you wanted to get for the opening and couldn’t?

I would love to have had Shania there. But she had a commitment already, and tried desperately to get out of it, but just couldn’t make it work. There were a couple of people like that. I contacted Anne Murray, and she was so honored to be asked, but couldn’t do it because of her schedule. And at the same time, I mean, it’s nine minutes long, and we could’ve made it 30 minutes long and it wouldn’t have been long enough. There really are so many more deserving people, so maybe in a couple of years what we should do is part two of this and have a whole different group up there.

“Girl Crush” was particularly inspired. It started off with a young woman who has reached the star level, Kelsea Ballerini, and ended with the women of Little Big Town, who have been around longer and of course originated the song, and then in between you had those one-by-one reveals of the freshman and sophomore artists, with the identifying Twitter handles.

Since Kelsea was involved, (her manager) Jason Owen and I started talking about how we could honor these young women, and so we started playing around with “Girl Crush,” and then I took it from there and did an arrangement and blocked that out. I was proud of the evolution of how the performance laid out before you: We literally start in the house on the satellite stage, and by the end of it just over three minutes later, we end up with all the women on the main stage with Little Big Town —with, I think, seven acts, and 11 people. It felt like it was laid back and not rushed and everybody got their moment. Normally when you have that kind of thing, it feels jumbled. And I didn’t do the hashtags just for us. I mean, yes, I did do the hashtags because you might not know who they are and at least there’s a name to it, but the other thing is that we want to help these younger artists, so if the fan at home sees Runaway June and doesn’t know who they are, they can go to their phones and follow them on Instagram or Twitter.

Lady Antebellum and Halsey was a pop/country combo that worked.

That was totally my idea. I’m going to take 100 percent credit for that one! Here’s the thing. Halsey I’ve worked with a lot, because I also produce the Billboard Music Awards. Halsey’s a star in every sense of the word. We were hanging out back in May, and I said something and she was like, “Wait, hold on. You do the CMA Awards?… Ohhh. It’s a bucket list moment for me. I would love to do that show. I love everything about Nashville — the musicians… If there’s any way I could do it, I would love to.” So I told her right then to keep the dates on hold, and she kept me abreast of what she’d been doing. She sent me several songs off of her new record that nobody had heard yet. There was another song that I was looking at possibly as a collaboration, but I stumbled upon a YouTube clip of Halsey doing “Graveyard” acoustically that gave it a completely different feel and really brought out the lyrical content. Then, maybe a week later, Lady Antebellum’s manager sent me an acoustic piano version only of “What If I Never Get Over You,” a that’s when the light bulb went off. I called Halsey and said, “I want to take it one step further. I think it’s a real acoustic moment with dobro, acoustic instruments, a really, really musical moment…”  She was all in. She was so excited about the possibility of performing with Lady A because she’s in awe of them as artists and singers. So then I called Lady A and I didn’t have to do any selling at all. I was adamant about keeping the presentation as simple as we possibly could, that it wasn’t about a production moment or the set or anything but these musicians coming together. That’s why I put ’em on stools. I said, “I’m not even worried about you performing to the audience. Perform to each other.”

Whose idea was the Kacey Musgraves/Willie Nelson duet?

“Rainbow Connection” was absolutely, totally Kacey. And to be completely honest, I wasn’t absolutely sure in the beginning. It took me a minute to think about it, but that’s okay. I wasn’t sure at first because it’s a really left of center idea. But the more I thought about it, the more I thought, “Well, I still am not sure 100% about it, but I do know I trust Kacey and I trust her instincts.” Here’s the thing: nobody knows Kacey better than Kacey, in her music, her direction, what she wants to do, all the way down to wardrobe — she’s very specific. I started really embracing it and getting into it. At first it was just going to be Willie’s guitar only, and those two on vocals. And once I started really embracing it, I went back and said, “Kacey, there’s more going on here than just the song and Willie and your admiration of him. There’s drama here. There’s a sense of who Willie is and what he means to us, and what this is going to mean for the audience. For that reason, I think we should have a string section, so that it can elevate the performance and frame it with what an important moment it is to have Willie back on this stage.” And she agreed, and it ended up being beautiful and just shows you, once again, what can come of people working together and being open to each other’s ideas.

We think of Willie as being a tough-skinned guy, but since he had some health problems recently, there was something sweeter or tenderer or more vulnerable about seeing him up there doing a childlike ballad instead of, like, “On the Road Again.”

I think you’re right. I think “vulnerability” is a great word to apply to this situation. I mean, we always are excited to see Willie. But I think right now we understand the importance of it, and we understand that these are special moments, whenever we’re able to see him perform. I’m gonna tell you the truth: People cried in rehearsal. Crew members, and people sitting watching that rehearsal first time through… I looked back and people are literally crying. There are a lot of emotions running through when you see that kind of performance.

There weren’t a lot of lulls.

I love the strength of the “Girl” performance that Maren did. She’s become a consummate performer. I loved the satellite stage performance with Eric Church — you got to hear those lyrics in a different way and really understand what that song is saying. I could listen all day and all night to Pink sing, and then putting her with Chris Stapleton, which is one of our best there is, I could do a couple hours of just those two singing. Dan + Shay were terrific. It was great to see Miranda Lambert having fun again. Carrie was the superstar she is. Luke Combs got the energy going in the room. Brooks & Dunn with Brothers Osborne rocked. Blake Shelton, that was such a dramatic presentation of that song that we haven’t seen yet. Honoring Kris, seeing Joe Walsh up there on our stage with Dierks Bentley and Sheryl Crow was crazy good. Garth and Blake doing “Dive Bar,” which they’ve never done (on live TV).

Every year you go, “I wish I’d have done this,” or “I don’t know, that one didn’t turn out quite the way I saw it,” or “That one wasn’t as great as I thought it was going to be.” But I don’t think feel like that in this show. And it’s rare. If this was a different year… I mean, I wouldn’t say it out loud to you, because I wouldn’t want to go on record about it, but I would be like, “There were several performances that just weren’t as good as the others.” But everyone brought their game this year, and I think the artists should be proud of themselves. I’m not saying proud of themselves individually. These artists should be proud of themselves as a community.

What are you thinking about the host situation going forward? This obviously seemed like a one-off year with the all-female concept. There was an acknowledgement of Brad Paisley, sort of thanking him for stepping aside. With him you had the blessing of being the one awards show on television with a good, stable hosting situation, but also maybe the curse of not getting any news headlines or credit with the network when you’re having the same people back every year. People might love to have these same three hosts back next year, but you won’t have the overall novelty concept next year. Do you think it might start to be different every year?

To answer your question regarding the hosts for next year, sitting here where I am today, I would love to have the three of them back, personally. I think that’s a magical combination, and that magic would not go away for a while. I will promise you, you can ask any other producer, and they all envied me having Brad and Carrie for 11 years, because that was one thing that was constant and that I did not have to worry about, where other shows are scrambling. And personally, I don’t care for the non-host. I think that sometimes you have to spin it that you are going to go non-host in a (deliberate) direction as what you’re doing. But let’s face it, the reason you’re doing it is because a lot of times, it’s not a win situation for the host. You can be criticized if you do a bad job, and then if you do a great job, sometimes it goes unnoticed. So it’s hard to get a host. But I personally feel like a show is always better with a tour guide that helps give tone to the overall broadcast. Certainly Brad and Carrie did that, and now Dolly, Reba and Carrie created a great tone for the entire night. So right now, today, with these ratings, I absolutely would love to have the three of them back and do this whole thing over again. But I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.

So it doesn’t have to be the Year of the Woman to have Dolly, Reba and Carrie do it?

Noooooo. No no no no no. No, no. It doesn’t have to be that at all. They ought to make a record together. Wouldn’t that be great?

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